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Commercializing Nano: An Overview

By Jeremy Summers, NCBiotech Writer

Gathering for the Nanotech Commercialization Conference.

People in nanotechnology will tell you it’s not an industry. But it is a little something used in many industries.

Nanotech is poised to have the same kind of impact on North Carolina’s economy during the next 20 years that biotechnology has had for the past 30.

The state’s biotech infrastructure has helped grow nanotech within the state.  That’s why nanotechies from across the United States convened in Durham’s American Tobacco Historic District last week for the fourth annual Nanotech Commercialization Conference. 

The NanoBusiness Commercialization Association hosted the conference, in partnership with the N.C. Department of Commerce’s Office of Science and Technology, the Center for Innovation in Nanobiotechnology (COIN), and the Small Business and Technology Development Center.

Helps transition from old to new

The panel discussions and presentations covered topics ranging from national security to tips for successful business practices.  

As N.C. Secretary of Commerce Keith Crisco noted in his welcome, the conference’s venue, the American Tobacco Complex, served as a symbol for the revitalization of a traditional economy of manufacturing to the “new economy” of innovation and entrepreneurship.

Successful nanotech companies start with a good idea or a good technology. They’re often spun out of universities, where consistent funding, collaboration and creativity can breed innovation. 

The emphasis on life sciences in the state university system is a key reason North Carolina has become a leader in attracting nanotech companies. But speakers called for more speed in taking nanotech from the lab to the marketplace.  Conference organizers hope to fix that problem soon.

Commercializing needed for nanotech success

Many nanotech entrepreneurs have a good idea or a good technology, but may not know how to translate it into a successful business. That was a focus of this year’s conference.

You can read a report on a panel addressing those issues here.

Environmental safety a nano factor

For many nanotech companies, environmental safety guidelines are a huge concern. A “state of the union” panel on environmental health and safety discussed the Toxic Substances Control Act, a pending piece of legislation that will put nanotech in the public spotlight. The upside to this increased attention is that it will directly contribute to the growth of the industry, panelists said. 

Panelist Lynn Bergeson, partner in a Washington, D.C. law firm specializing in nanotech, noted that current and future “state and local initiatives are every bit as relevant as federal ones” in building and sustaining nanotech growth. Some initiatives also help nanotech companies avoid the “valley of death,” which describes the middle ground where many new companies fail, after launching a startup but before major funding.

 

Dr. David Carroll, of the Wake Forest Center for Nanotechnology

Risks inherent to technology

Hackers and spies are a problem for all tech-driven businesses.

The nano conferees heard about that from Richard Ridgley, of the National Reconnaissance Office, and two panels moderated by FBI Supervisory Special Agent James Gaylord.

They pointed out some of the very real dangers of industrial espionage and national security threats that are part of today’s business world. 

Nano helps manufacturing

The conference participants talked about the use of nanotech by the state’s manufacturers. North Carolina has established one of the strongest bases of firms in the country, largely through state and regional economic development programs. 

These programs have led to open innovation systems including networks, databases and other data-sharing mechanisms to drive the field. 

Daniel Herr, of the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering, said nano has revolutionized manufacturing.  “Scaling has allowed manufacturers to improve efficiency and quality while dropping costs,” he said. 

Last year, the U.S. and China each produced some $1.9 trillion in manufactured goods.  That took more than 100 million Chinese workers to meet the demand.  In the U.S., 11.2 million workers had the same output..  This advantage, Herr said, is what allows the U.S. to compete with China.

The biggest future of medicine is small

Another panel talked of nanomedicine, which has been accelerated in North Carolina by COIN since its launch by the N.C. Biotechnology Center.

One of the most exciting aspects of nanomedicine is the recent advent of an anti-virus technology. Developers hope to soon be able to use it to treat ear infections-- the most common reason people go to the doctor.

“One of the biggest problems in healthcare is drug-resistant biological infection,” said Roger Cubicciotti, president and CEO of NanoMedica.  Nanoviricides and other nanomedicines have the technology to solve such problems, said the Winston-Salem entrepreneur.

Another promise of nanomedicine, the panel pointed out, is to lower health-care costs. 

The conference also featured a keynote address from Dr. David Williams, director of international affairs at the Wake Forest University Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

He talked about the need for “matching the rhetoric to the underlying science and matching the marketing [of nanomedicine] to reality.” 

Nanotechnology has led to breakthroughs in tissue engineering. Tissue engineering allows doctors to generate human tissue for a more compatible product and more-effective treatment of various medical conditions.

Currently, this is only being done on a very small scale.  Williams said nanotech can lead to mass production. That could revolutionize healthcare and improve overall quality of life.

Dr. Charles Hamner receives the Pioneer Award.

A pioneer recognized

Charles Hamner, D.V.M., Ph.D., long-time president of the Biotechnology Center now working with his namesake Hamner Institutes for Health Sciences, was awarded the NanoBusiness and COIN Pioneer Award. 

Hamner has played a pivotal role in the growth of the biosciences in North Carolina.  He was cited in the award for his contributions including development of a convertible loan fund that has helped 52 startup companies receive $450 million in venture capital. 

Hamner also helped recruit industry giants such as Bayer, BASF and Wyeth (now Pfizer) to the state, resulting in more than 6,000 new jobs and $900 million a year in economic impact.

Today North Carolina has more than 500 life-science companies employing some 59,000 people, or 226,000 when you include those providing them with goods and services.